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Ukraine Struggles Against Fake Drug Trade

It's an international crime business that endangers human lives and generates billions of dollars every year through the sale of tablets and powders.

Unlike drug smuggling, however, medicine counterfeiting is still not considered a criminal offence under the legal systems of a number of east European countries including Ukraine.

"We tell the police.

They open investigations and then just drop them.

It's not a crime," said an exasperated Anna Pilipenko, an inspector at a laboratory in Kiev that is part of a state network for testing thousands of pharmaceuticals.

But as this country of 47 million people draws closer to the West, officials are gradually getting to grips with the problem, tabling new laws and introducing increased checks.

Ukraine is still lagging in healthcare, with a life expectancy of 68 that is 10 years below the average in the neighbouring European Union, according to EU and World Bank figures.

So far in 2007, Pilipenko's lab has found three percent of pharmaceuticals checked to be counterfeits.

Usually the products are not toxic but contain far less of their active ingredient than required.

Pilipenko pointed to a shelf used for teaching purposes that contained dozens of medicine packages in pairs -- a genuine version and a seemingly indistinguishable fake one.

Looking more closely, the differences appeared.

One cure against stomach pains turned out to be vanilla powder and several remedies against allergies and influenza carried the wrong markings.

These medicines can be seized from chemists and hospitals as they constitute a health risk for Ukrainians, but at the moment their producers and importers cannot be prosecuted.

In addition there are numerous medicines sold at discount prices through Internet sites that have sprung up in Ukraine, meaning that the proportion of counterfeits could be higher.
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